Millennial women may soon have a new high-tech birth control option that beats the daily pill: a small remote-operated implant that lasts up to 16 years and can be turned on and off over a wireless connection.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding a project that aims to explore new forms of birth control, and the remote control implant would be the first hormone-based option that lasts more than five years. Traditional birth control — namely the pill and condoms — have proven to be less effective because of improper use. Condom use as the sole form of birth control is on the decline, with only about 5 percent of men using them regularly. And it’s easy to forget to take a pill at the same time everyday (it’s also rendered ineffective if the woman is taking other medications such as antibiotics).
The wireless “pill” is set to hit the market by 2018 with pre-clinical trials starting next year, MIT Technology Review first reported. Women would get the chip implanted under the skin on the upper arm, abdomen or buttocks.
Using a wireless remote, women get a 30 micrograms daily dose of common birth control hormone levonorgestrel for up to 16 years with no need for refills. Patients would also be able to stop the birth control at any time without making a trip to the doctor to get the implant removed.
The Gates Foundation has a track record for improving birth control methods. In November, the foundation held a “build a better condom” contest, receiving nearly 1,000 applications. The $1 million contest’s goal was to encourage applicants to design a condom that preserves pleasure for both partners so that people would actually use it.
However, the new project also raises some privacy and security concerns. Because the chip runs on a wireless connection, like many medical devices, it’s vulnerable to hacking. Hackers can commandeer devices, such as a bluetooth headset or electronic key fob, by tapping into their wireless connection. Medical devices are especially susceptible because their malfunctioning can be life-threatening. A study found that drug infusion pumps that dispensed morphine drips, antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs could be hacked and have the dosages changed or turned off completely, Wired recently reported. Cybersecurity experts have also remotely hacked into an insulin pump to demonstrate that someone could give a person a fatal overdose without even being in the same room.
The Food and Drug Administration has warned that “[m]any medical devices contain configurable embedded computer systems that can be vulnerable to cybersecurity breaches.” Because these devices are “increasingly interconnected, via the Internet, hospital networks, other medical device, and smartphones, there is an increased risk of cybersecurity breaches, which could affect how a medical device operates.”
As wireless medical devices become more common, manufacturers will need to take more security precautions, such as encrypting the chip’s data flow. Moreover, any remote control drug delivery poses additional risks if the manufacturer makes an error, like programming the wrong dosage or administering the wrong drug.